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No one cares about your stupid little startup – 5 tips to make them care

This post is adapted from a talk I gave at Sutherland Gold’s PR Bootcamp in October 2009.

The title of this post “No one cares about your stupid little startup” was a message I learned in the earliest days of Xobni during a phone call with SiteAdvisor and Hunch founder Chris Dixon.   To this day, I still haven’t met Chris in person (Chris if you come across this post, we’ve got to catch up next time I’m in NYC), but this one phrase has guided every step of my thinking for Xobni’s PR strategy for the past 3 and a half years.

I’ve embeded my presentation below.  The presentation will take you through our path to 3 million downloads.  The first half of the presentation isn’t PR specific but outlines our stages of user development.  I outline how we rolled our product out to the masses through carefully planned stages: stealth, closed beta, nerd scarcity, invite beta, public beta,official launch, and business model driven growth (the current stage).

The second half of the presentation specifically focuses on five tips and case studies for how to drive awareness for your startup through PR.  I’ve  broken out the latter half of the presentation below and included much more explanation than I was able to put in powerpoint.

Here is a link to the preso just incase the embed above doesn’t work for you

1.  Tie yourself to a bigger trend

This is the best way for a startup to hack the PR system.  There are thousands of startups.  Why should a journalist write about yours?  Yet, they all love to write about Facebook, Information Overload,  and Google vs. Microsoft.  So, tie yourself to one of these trends.

For Xobni, we tied ourselves to the following trends

  • The web inside your inbox
  • Facebook crossing into the business world
  • Email, the oldest social network
  • Enterprise software is going grassroots
  • Email overload

But you can’t just say you are part of a trend, you have to make some noise so people pay attention.  So here is what we did.

Remember a couple years ago how Facebook would send you an email that said “you have a message,” but didn’t send you the content of the message?  I hated that.   Turns out, a lot of people hated this.


So, one night we made a Facebook app that would put a big button on your Facebook page that said “Stop!  Email Me Instead” and when a user clicked the button, it opened an email addressed to you.   You could also one-click reply to any Facebook message with this button and kindly ask the sender “Please email me instead.”

EmailMeButton10 thousand people installed our app in less than a week. Fred Wilson, VentureBeat, and others wrote about it.  We hadn’t even announced what Xobni’s real product was and yet we were already working on our PR.

2.  Take every opportunity to meet a journalist in person

I won’t say much, other than two quick corollaries.  First, use a product feedback session as a way to build a relationship before you are ever looking for a story. Tech journalists like Arrington, Om, Rafe and others have seen a lot products come and go.  They have a good idea of what works.  Have them look at your product way before you need that press hit  “ah.” (arm slap, arm slap – think trainspotting heroin injection)  You’ll get some good product feedback and you’ll build a relationship that is deeper than any press release.

Second, this all become much easier if you are in a tech capital where tech journalists and bloggers are living their lives.  The ability to bump into a writer from the WSJ, TechCrunch, or CNet on a street corner is an under appreciated benefit of basing your company in the SFBay.

3.  Heavily engage with users – WOM is better than PR

A few things we’ve done that seemed to work well:

  • Our 5th employee was a customer support guy
  • We have an elite alpha forum of 500 users that test and provide feedback way ahead of the general public.  And they worship Tyler our QA lead and his rare form of tough love.


    Tough Love Tyler

  • We continue to stay focused on individual users.  I try to do one phone call per week with a user.  It resulted in a good blog series.
  • We have a special twitter handle for customer support xobni_support
  • And we send out a lot of t-shirts :) is one company that has made their blue ribbon customer support a PR story in and of itself.

4.  Journalists are people.  People are lazy.  Therefore, journalists are lazy.

Most startups are on to this trick.  Just like you design your product for the expected laziness of your users, build a press center for lazy journalists.  They are people too.

We have a webpage dedicated to everything a journalist could ever need (screenshots, videos, company history, investors) in one spot.  A product video on youtube can do miracles.  You can help a blogger understand your product without having to try it and they’ll often put the youtube video in their blog.

5.  Be a source  of data

The press may not care about your product, but they often will care about the data your company has can provide.  Do you remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Superbowl?  It was the most replayed piece of television ever recorded.  Tivo had the data.


I know that was the first time I ever thought, “Damn, I wish I had a Tivo.”

  • Mark Essel

    10k downloads that fast is phenomenal. You struck value gold, legendary. Loved your take on PR. I have an image of the perfect product/service storm and it’s one that grows perfectly with out capabilities. At Victus Media we’ve got one tech lead and one tech flunky (me). I’m ramping up on my web programming skills and may one day be more than just dangerous. I’m the dreamer that wants to uncover the perfect social discovery tool, and push real time search into a two way exchange as well as transform ads into relevant content. My buddy Tyler is a passionate ruby wizard that’s exploring the limits of service tech.

    Thanks again for the info, I found you via Chris Dixon’s tweet earlier so thanks to him for the exposure/share.

  • Mark Essel

    Wtb an edit key. “Grow perfectly with our capabilities”
    ps get Disqus :)

  • Gavin Baker

    Great points, tying yourself to an existing trend is great advice. On your second point “meet them in person” you mentioned getting early feedback from tech journalists – prior to release, what did you find was the best method to get on their radar initially?

    Thanks for the great product and post. BTW – Would love a Mac version. Realize I’m probably 1/1,000,000 but I love it.

    Gavin Baker

  • John Atkinson

    Great tactical tips Matt. As a co-founder of a startup as well (BuzzVoice), I can relate to the journey.

    Another great read is Jason Calacanis’ post “How to Get PR for Your Startup”

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • Adwait A. Walimbe

    This is an awesome PR post. I've always thought it was important to work on and focus on your main startup. It's interesting that Xobni gained a solid user base, goodwill, and PR by integrating multiple, appealing services and products.

    I'm a startup founder myself –
    Contact –

  • Niyi


    I like the idea of tying your startup to a bigger trend.

    People instantly see where you fit in within the big picture and consequently, it acts as a badge of credibility.

    I'm curious to know what other big trends you see; especially within online advertising.

    I for one strongly believe more large sites will adopt the Facebook Ads model and create their own self service system.

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  • Yinglan Tan

    Venture capitalists are like skilled chefs. Their dishes – the successful companies in their portfolios – are most valuable when the firms remain small and retain their own distinct style. When a chef tries to mass-produce a menu item, the dish loses value – scaling a batch beyond its ideal size degrades its quality. Likewise, when partners of VC firms take on too many deals and overstretch themselves with too many companies to look after, they can no longer add sufficient value to each portfolio company.

    Tan Yinglan

    The Way Of The VC – Top Venture Capitalists On Your Board (Amazon:

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  • increasequalityofyourlife

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  • Josh Grossman

    Great, practical advice Matt. I'm curious as to whether you guys did any paid advertising or sponsorships and if anything in particular was worthwhile?

  • brezina

    Hey Josh – yes, we've experimented with a lot of paid advertising. Some remained just that – an experiment, and others we've scaled if they performed well on at least one of the 4 metrics we measure: profitability, user acquisition cost, user engagement, or virality. As to which paid channels are working, well that is a secret :)

  • Natalie Sisson

    It seems like you did many things right in your launch and got some fantastic press. We managed to leverage great press from being a part of TechCrunch50 and at the PayPal X conference however our closed beta launch may have been a barrier to entry for many customers. Even though FundRazr is a Facebook app I find you have to have a great story angle to get attention from the Big Wigs of PR and of course being in San Fran or the Valley helps!

    Great presentation and Xobni is an excellent tool – need to reinstall it actually!

  • brezina

    Thanks for sharing your story Natalie. The closed beta/open beta line is a tough line to walk. And i totally agree, being in SF or the valley helps immensely.

    Glad to hear you are liking Xobni!

  • cheryllmorris

    Hey Matt,

    This was the most helpful and practical post/article I've read on building a user base – thanks. I'd love to hear more about the more early stage initiatives/ideas you used to ramp up — or really did TC bring you from 50 to 10,000 users? Also wondering about the badge program: Do you think it's still a good idea, or given the hype around foursquare are people “over it” as part of another web app? By any means, thanks for the post, and I'm sure I'll refer to it again down the road.

  • brezina

    glad i could help cheryl. Thanks for stopping by! I don't think the badge program is dead. Anything that you can get on someone's site that links back to yours is fantastic for SEO and awareness. You just need to think of something compelling for that end user.

  • Azzam Sheikh

    Just got to the blog post now since I have been having a ball with the FeedSquare reader in Chrome and it made we want to read feeds :)

    But Great posy, by the way, makes me think damn! I wish I had kept my little heatmap analytics tool going which had approx 100 users and I thought it was a dead thing, I should have communicated more.

    Back to the drawing board with a new concept, thanks.

  • Bhaskarsamuel B

    I have not gone for native searching of Outlook emails ever since I started using GetMail of GetMail has fetched them for me with just a few character input. It is interactive and responds to each character input.

  • Stuart Gitsham

    This was a good article providing sound practical advice. One thing I would add. Find a professional pr person to help you. PR is labour intensive. At some point you will need assistance. Avoid large agencies, they are expensive and insitutional in their thinking. Find the guy that worked in a big agency, has a good reputation and is now going it alone.

  • Isla Pergola

    PR is extremely challenging, especially when you are first starting out.  It is really difficult to find the right route and then stick to it.  Thanks for the insights and I´ll be referring back to this article again with our little companies next launch.

  • Steve Smith

    I have a small company that is growing leaps and bounds just through a set of well made youtube videos.  Until we got onto the idea of video, our pr dept was hitting their head against a brick wall.  Video has made such a dramatic impact on our sales that I can´t imagine that there are companies that are not using this as a primary pr tool.  Thanks for the read, excellent information and some ideas that I wouldn´t even have thought of.

    Cheers, Stevehttp://youngdriversinsura…

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  • Ola

    Yinglan you Singaporean, elitist fuck. Learn english.

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